Farm employers are facing a host of conundrums concerning staff as the Coronavirus crisis deepens. Sharmon Blackwell of CXCS provides 10 key pointers.
The government’s guidance to work from home will clearly not be possible for staff on many farms, so the focus should be protecting those who are still coming into work. Reduce the contact your staff have with you and each other wherever possible – larger business might be able to introduce rotas or shift patterns to reduce overlap between people. Make sure everyone understands and follows social-distancing guidelines. Replace face-to-face contact with phone, email or Skype/WhatsApp communication wherever possible, and lunch and tea breaks should be taken individually, not even in twos and threes. Provide soap and hand-sanitising kit in
shared areas, including vehicles and tractors and buildings such as milking parlours.
It’s important to have measures in place for a potential escalation of the situation. If, for example, one worker has to self-isolate what would this mean for other employees? How will you get through lambing? Create a contingency plan covering a range of eventualities, focusing particularly on how you can keep business-critical operations – such as feeding stock – running. Think about transferable skills and start training staff now for possible new tasks. It’s worth ensuring all employees’ contact numbers and emergency contact details are all up to date.
The government has said it will pay 80% of the salaries of ‘furloughed’ workers up to a maximum of £2,500 per month. This ‘Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme’, which will be in place for three months initially and backdated to March 1, will be the saviour of many businesses. To qualify, an employee can’t continue to do any work for you. Employers can choose to top-up the 80% HMRC payment, but don’t not have to.
4. Reducing hours
You can offer staff less overtime, but you can only reduce their hours (for instance, ask them to drop to a three-day week) if there is a clause to this effect in their contract of employment. Unless your contracts were drawn up by an HR professional, it may well be that such a clause doesn’t exist so an employee would need to be fully in agreement with such a proposal. Staff – like business owners – recognise these are extraordinary times, so may well want to be flexible.
5. Job descriptions
In theory, someone can only be expected to do what’s in their job description, but there’s no reason you can’t ask an employee if they’re prepared to tackle different tasks to normal in the short-term. It’s important to treat this as a discussion rather than a fait accompli. Most farm workers have a range of skills and a very diverse role, so there is scope to harness their varied experience. Remember, too, you can’t ask them to do anything they’re not trained or qualified to do – so keep this in mind when it comes to vehicles and machinery – and you
obviously need to stay compliant with all the health and safety rules.
6. Sick pay
If an employee needs to self-isolate (on the advice of NHS 111 or a doctor) or is sent home as a precaution, they’re entitled to Statutory Sick Pay from day one. This includes those who may be a carrier of COVID-19 but may not have symptoms and people caring for those in the same household who display symptoms and have been told to self-isolate. Employers should use discretion around the need for medical evidence where an employee is advised to self-isolate. Employees can currently self-certify for the first seven days.
Redundancy is a traumatic process for an employer as well as an employee, but in extreme circumstances, this might be your only option. There is a legal procedure to be followed. An employee will normally be entitled to statutory redundancy pay if they’ve been working for you full time for two years or more. The maximum statutory redundancy pay is capped £15,750.
If some people are away, others may be working longer hours or at a faster pace than normal, so ensure you are still complying with the Working Time Regulations 1998 (workers can’t be required to do more than an average of 48 hours a week). Also keep an eye on stress levels, offering support and adjusting targets and deadlines. Make sure people’s extra efforts are noticed and appreciated. Employees will be affected in different ways, so try to nip any perceptions of unfairness in the bud.
9. Listen and reassure
Employees, understandably, may be worried and will have concerns about their family or friends. Ensure that you are listening and reassuring them and that the measures you are taking are to protect them and not to cause alarm or panic.
10. Don’t forget yourself
Ultimately, you are your business’s biggest asset, so don’t forget to think about yourself in your attempts to look after those around you. Taking care of your own physical and mental health is vital during deeply challenging times such as this.
Sharmon Blackwell heads up CXCS’s HR service. Find out more at CXCS